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Shared Explorations (Part I)

April 23, 2017

I took Jesse to the Kellogg – Weaver Dunes today. Our first destination was the Town and Country Café in Kellogg. I wanted to eat there with Jesse because the café is an important part of Thelma’s history and the history of the sand prairie. It’s a place where locals like to gather and socialize. So I thought it important that I eat there to experience the café. We were going to walk about the prairie a bit before we went to eat, however, we got a late start so by the time we reached Highway 61 and turned on to 84 it was nearly noon and the café closed at 1:00 pm, so we decided it best to go to eat first. As we drove along 84, I explained things to Jesse. I told him to watch the water for birds. I showed him where people lived, whom I’ve spoken to about their lives on the prairie and shared some of that history with him. As we the curves in the road, I pointed out the channelization of the Zumbro River, talking about the negative effects of channeling the river. Jesse was amazed by how much water was in the fields near the channel – in some places there were pools of standing water. (Just before the road turned, the fields were dry enough a guy was planting corn.) Jesse was amazed by this. I told him they should undo the channelization and let the river flow here where it desires to – the water remembers its old course so water still runs there.  The area should be a wetland instead of farmland.

We arrived at the café in Kellogg, hungry, ready to eat. We sat down and looked over the menu. After we ordered our lunch, we looked at the history hanging on the wall, quite fascinated by it. We enjoyed our lunch and a slice of pie and were quite stuffed. We were ready to go spend time on the prairie.

As we drove by a section of prairie, I explained to Jesse that during the summer, this area would be torn up and a bunch of sand would be dumped there, filling in and building it up. It will be a huge mess – Larry isn’t too happy with the way they are going to go about it. The restored prairie across the road looks really great; it looks the way the Nature Conservancy would like to see it. Also, it was a lot of work gathering the seed to plant the area. Larry preferred they’d dump the sand in a more localized area within the prairie and do it without tearing everything up first. I turned the jeep on to the West Newton road. The prairie was on our left. A couple of poultry barns sat by the intersection to our right, then a field/yard like area with a no trespassing sign and a line of trees. A little ways down the road, a gravel driveway to our left met the road, went parallel to it for a few yards then curved off northward to a nice paved parking area and public water access – this is West Newton Landing. They’ll close it this summer to pile the sand on the prairie. I turned the jeep onto the gravel driveway. I parked a little further away from the water access spot, in an area that wasn’t paved but graveled. The day was quite warm, almost eighty degrees and sunny so it was no surprise that there were many vehicles with boat trailers behind them, nearly filling up the parking area. We walked down the incredibly steep hill to the boat landing. There were three docks and one was under water and parts of the other two were as well. The water level was quite high. We walked on some large rocks along the water’s edge, on the left side of the furthest north dock. I pointed out an eagle flying far above the channel to Jesse. We sat down on the stones for a few minutes, watching boats come in and out. I had mixed feelings about the boats and their occupants. It was great to see so many people out enjoying the beautiful day – but was it anything more than an opportunity to get the boat out? Did they marvel in the budding tree leaves? Did their hearts soar with the bald eagles? Did they even notice the beauty and a world coming alive after the cold winter? Were they wonderstruck by it all, by the complexity of this ecosystem and all the many things that keep it in balance? Or was it all about the boat ride? And while boating is fun, I’ve enjoyed many boat rides, what harm and disturbance is it bringing to this place? Sometimes I find these divided feelings quite frustrating. – If only I could be all for motorized boats (they have some good qualities and uses) or totally against them (no way should they be used for recreation, only commercial fishing and scientific research). But I think a more realistic and holistic view is to be right in the middle. As a naturalist/ environmentalist/ nature lover, I find a canoe far superior to motorized boats – it causes far less disturbance and allows for more connection with the environment. Jesse and I moved carefully off the rocks and on to the dock for a better view down the West Newton Chute, a narrow side channel of the Mississippi River. My camera strap hung around my neck, but even so, I cradled my camera in both hands. The dock rocked gently back and forth in the water, which was rather soothing until Jesse started rocking the dock a bit more aggressively than the water, just to mess with me. Of course, he received some light scolding by me – I was trying to take some photos which was difficult with the extra movement of the dock. Straight out ahead of us to the northeast, is the main, navigable channel of the Mississippi. Not very far to the north of us, but blocked by a forested strip of land, the Zumbro dumps into the Mississippi. These two rivers played an important role in the shaping of the Kellogg – Weaver Dunes. To the left of the dock we sat on, is a small channel – perhaps it is part of the Zumbro or a separate stream running into the Mississippi (it isn’t marked, not even shown actually on Google maps. – Perhaps Larry would know.) Trees covered both sides of the channel, leaning out over it, creating a tunnel. The buds on the trees were just starting to open up – dots of color in the gray branches. I pointed out another bald eagle to Jesse. He said, “It’s probably the same one.” I hoped it was another one. There were several platforms, wood attached to floating barrels, bobbing on the water of the small side channel. Each had some kind of structure on top, probably a bench of some sort. There was also a shed like structure on floats (barrels) bobbing in the water. Jesse called it a redneck house boat, however, it wasn’t a house boat or even intended to be one. It had no floor. Only a few feet under the walls were on the floats made from barrels attached to wood. But it was certainly a shed built with wood and covered in tin. The walls were gray and the roof top used to be gray but was now covered in rust. There was a doorway at one end, no door but there was a piece of wood nailed across the top half. We were puzzled by what this structure’s function was. It turned in the water, clockwise. At first the open end was facing us, but within five minutes it turned such that its long side faced us and we could no longer see inside of it. Across the channel, directly ahead of us was an island completely covered with trees. A little ways down the channel from us, to our right, a small channel split the island, only a small chunk lay to the left of the small channel. The bank on either side was carpeted in bright green. All of this we observed in only a few minutes. The gentle rock of the dock was relaxing – I could have laid down there and spent the rest of the afternoon in that spot. I carefully bent down toward the water and dipped my fingers in, curious about the temperature of the water. Somewhat surprisingly, it didn’t feel ice cold, it was more of a refreshing cold – though it probably would have felt much colder if I had jumped in. It was probably warm enough though to have dipped my feet in, which was tempting to do given how warm the day was getting. We sat there on the dock, soaking up the sun for about fifteen minutes more before we decided we should keep moving. It was Jesse who asked if we should head out again, to see the ruins.

So we left the dock, climbed up the incredibly steep hill, got back in the jeep, took West Newton road back to Highway 84, and headed south along 84. Before taking Jesse to see the ruins, I pulled on to the sand driveway by the McCarthy Lake sign, bumping along it to the parking area. We didn’t take the time to stop the vehicle though; I just wanted to show Jesse what was back there. Jesse asked, “Could you walk down there?” He was referring to the woods on the edge of the little dirt parking area.

“Yeah, but it would be wet. There’s a small creek and then further into the trees a channel of water. Larry and I walked in there this winter.”

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Canoeing in the Fog

March 28, 2017

The fog was quite thick, but despite the foggy morning and the temperature around twenty eight degrees, Larry and I decided we’d take the canoe out. We thought the fog would burn off quickly since the sun was shining brightly but it didn’t burn off until 10:30 am or so. We put the canoe in on McCarthy just off the bridge around 8:00 am. We brought Hank with us. Larry paddled the canoe up McCarthy following our route from last fall. Ducks flew away as we drew near; Larry identified mallards, buffleheads, ring necks, northern shovelers and teal. Canada geese squawked noisily when we drew close to them. The fog was so thick we had very little visibility; we couldn’t see anything beyond the trees lining the water on either side. The trees themselves were nothing more than just faint pencil drawings. Though too foggy to take pictures of the birds (the camera wasn’t focusing) it was quite lovely and mystical. The fog isolated us from everything else, compounding the feeling of serenity canoeing brings. I enjoyed our solitude. The fog seemed to enhance the bird calls; since we couldn’t see them very well, my hearing stepped up a notch – maybe the fog was trapping in the sound. Larry spotted a kingfisher; I didn’t see it but only heard it. The beauty of the water and the trees in the fog was breathtaking, but my head and eyes began to hurt from the strain of trying to see through the fog.

As we drew closer to the trees they came more into focus. The still nude trees were reflected in the water, their reflections clearer than they. We passed the first island of trees. On our right was a tree gnawed on by a beaver. The rushes and cattails were golden, no fresh green plants. We glided along it; it was like a dream. We glided past the last island; I looked for muskrats as we passed. There were pairs of squawking Canada geese that I could just make out. As we neared they began squawking noisily, making quite the fuss. They didn’t fly away immediately but when they finally did Larry said, “Yes, go away. Good riddance.”

I saw a muskrat house tucked behind vegetation. Hopefully it was occupied by a rat. The water lily plants were just beginning to grow – bright green nubs sticking out of the mud at the bottom, the leaves starting to unfurl. Larry was a little surprised they were popping up already. Larry steered the canoe to a patch of vegetation near the northeast bank that stuck out into the water, where my foot went through the ice this past winter. He pushed the canoe into the vegetation, going over a log. He was looking for a particular muskrat lodge. At first he couldn’t see it; I looked around also, trying to find it. But then Larry spotted it and steered the canoe toward it. We got a little hung up so I had to help steer the canoe and pull it forward. When we were close enough to the lodge, Larry asked me to step out of the canoe and stand on a clump of vegetation. I hesitantly stood up and stepped out on the clump. It shifted a little under my feet; I think perhaps there was a log under it. It was kind of unnerving and yet amazing to be standing on a log and plants in the water. Once I was out of the canoe, Larry pushed it up along the lodge so he could pull out two stakes, each holding a trap. Larry and I were both glad they were empty. Larry was very upset, the trapper was relentless – a long string of swear words were uttered by Larry. He placed the traps into a bucket he had brought along for that purpose and placed it back in the canoe. Then he wiped off the stakes and laid them in the bottom of the canoe. The clump seemed to be moving even more under my feet, I was eager to return to the canoe though I enjoyed the experience. Larry stepped back in to the bow and walked back to his spot in the stern, then he backed up the canoe, pausing for me to step in the bow. I sat down and Larry continued backing up the canoe until we were out of the vegetation. We continued onward into the fog, going further up McCarthy. Logs and stumps stuck up out of the water. We could see the faint outlines of six geese near the vegetation on our left. They began squawking and carrying on but they didn’t fly away. I could hear the haunting call of a sandhill crane somewhere on the marsh. I admired the large stumps as we went past them – what grand trees must have stood upon them! Other than right by the bridge the water was extremely shallow, barely deep enough for the canoe. So we didn’t go much further before Larry said, “Bethany, we’re going to run out of water.” Shorty after he said those words, Larry turned the canoe around. I was sad to be turning around so quickly.

The sun was shining through the fog, well not exactly shining through – it appeared through the fog as a pale, yellow orb. It was not burning the fog very quickly. I was becoming quite cold but I was still enjoying the outing.

We didn’t return the same way, we took the other channel; it was deeper. The trees on our right seemed to rise out of nothing, the edge of the world – everything beyond shrouded in gray. I reveled in the beauty of the pencil drawn trees and their images mirrored in the channel. We seemed to be canoeing into nothingness as well – like we were sailing on the Dawn Treader, nearing the world’s edge. The pale yellow orb was also reflected in the water.

As the channel curved about, Larry said, “There’s either a beaver or muskrat swimming by the trees ahead of us. It looks like a muskrat.” It took a few moments for me to figure out where the muskrat was but once I spotted it I watched it until the small animal disappeared into the vegetation on our right. Since it was still foggy I didn’t bother to try photographing it but enjoyed watching it swim. We drew near to the bridge, I was quite chilled, my feet were just about numb, but I was not ready to be done. So I was very happy when Larry continued to paddle the canoe under the bridge.

The base of a tree on our right had been stripped of bark, grooved with teeth marks. We had entered beaver territory. There were so many beaver scent mounds! I admired the way a tree hung out over the water and the loveliness of its reflection. Last year the scent mounds were mostly near the bridge and there weren’t quite nearly as many. But as we continued down Schmoker’s they seemed to line the channel on either side. There were so many mounds one could almost imagine you could smell the castor as we passed, and perhaps we could. Larry joked, “This is a mound building tribe of beavers!” Indeed! Many trees had been chewed on by beavers. I was delighted to see the beaver signs and by the thought that one could be nearby.  As we passed the lodge, I hoped we’d see one but they didn’t make an appearance. I admired the trees along the bank to our left as we went down the channel. The fog was still thick – making it hard to pick out all the landmarks.

Soon we were near the first beaver dam. It was in need of some repair. A tree stood to the right side of the channel a few feet down from the dam. A top most branch leaned out over the water. Sitting on the branch, I could just make out the outline of a bald eagle; another faded pencil drawing. I watched it for a few moments as we drew near, a bit surprised the majestic bid didn’t fly away at our approach.

We’d come to the side channel Larry and I used last May to get out on Goose Lake. A bigger log lay across the opening this time. Suddenly I saw a mink swim across the mouth of the side channel my heart leapt at the sight of the small predator. I pointed it out to Larry.

“Yeah, I see it. A mink.” I was lost in watching it swim, such grace. I enjoyed seeing the mink. I kept my eyes on it until it disappeared into some vegetation only a moment later. Larry stopped paddling so we could linger there. He said, “It might come out again.” But after waiting quietly for a few minutes, it didn’t reappear. Larry skillfully turned the canoe around bumping into a submerged log. I was disappointed to be heading back already despite being chilled.

The fog didn’t seem to be quite as thick but there was still very little visibility – the world around us was still very much shrouded in gray. As we passed by the big beaver lodge, I again studied it carefully just in case a beaver was sitting there. Were the beavers hanging out in there? A whole family even? Even the nearby trees appeared hazy and faded in the fog. A state game refuge sign was in the middle of the channel, mostly submerged in the water. The bridge drew near, there appeared to be nothing beyond the bridge – it was completely gray. We went under the bridge and landed the canoe. Although I had been a bit disappointed the fog didn’t burn off while we were canoeing, it gave a new perspective to the marsh and channel – I experienced it in a new way; and of course it was very beautiful and had a mystical feel. Though nothing was green yet, spring had arrived to the marsh, the birds I could hear but couldn’t see sang of spring. The whole thing was quite enchanting.

As we left the marsh and prairie behind us, Larry and I both were looking forward to another outing.

Up and Down Sand Dunes

March 22, 2017

Larry and I were itching to go canoeing, there had been several good days for it but we weren’t able to get together on those days. This morning was cutting it close on temperature; it was around twenty eight degrees. Larry said, “It’s a little too cold for canoeing this morning; there’ll be some ice.” So instead of going canoeing we headed down Highway 84, turning off for West Newton. Just before West Newton, Larry pulled off on to the side of the road.

We stepped out of the truck; Larry came around to my side of the truck to let Hank out. We walked down into the ditch, ducked under the low branches of trees and stepped out on to the rolling prairie. Last time we walked a fairly flat section of the sand prairie; today we traversed the sand dunes, some as tall as thirty feet, though one seemed taller than that. We passed some gopher mounds, decent piles of sand resting on top of the grass. As always, Hank ran ahead and went this way and that way, exploring at top speed. The prairie grasses here didn’t seem quite as thick though the little bluestem was about knee height. (It never ceases to amaze me how vast the prairie is – is it really so big or does it only feel that way because it’s empty, there’s no buildings, very few trees, nothing to break up the horizon?)

It started out as gentle inclines but the further we walked the larger the dunes became. There was a wall of trees to the left and right of us and behind us but it was completely open ahead of us. Ahead, far off in the distance were bluffs, hemming in the prairie. We veered to our left. It didn’t take long before I was winded and breathing heavily – I guess I need to walk more, especially uphill. Up and down and back up we went, again and again. There were a few trees here and there dotting the prairie, tiny oak, cedars and pine trees. Many of the little pine trees had been cut down, lying in little piles here and there. Larry explained they were being cut to keep the trees from taking over.

We approached the pine and cedar wall on our left. Hank sniffed around at the bases of a few of the trees. At the tree line, Larry turned right, walking along the tree line. I followed behind, even fell behind a ways every now and then. We continued climbing up and down the dunes. It seemed like we’d been walking a long time. At the top of a dune, I had paused to take in the landscape, turning every direction. The prairie stretched far into the south and west. Turning east, the line of trees we’d ducked through to get to the prairie seemed a long way off. Far in the distance to the northeast, I could see the smoke stacks of the Alma power plant. I also took in the texture of the dunes, the depressions, pockets between each rising dune. As we stood there on top of a dune, looking east, Larry explained how the encroaching trees made things difficult for nesting turtles by creating a barrier that’s hard to penetrate and the trees provide a place for predators to sit and wait. We only paused for a moment before we continued walking. Larry turned to the right, leading us north, along the top of a dune. We passed along a small tree broken off, bark rubbed away. Larry made a comment about a buck really going at it, rubbing it with its head. I continued to marvel at the roll of the dunes and in the largeness of the prairie as we walked along. It had a way of making me feel quite small, and very much out of shape as I breathlessly and wearily trailed behind Larry, traversing only a small fraction of it. – Up, up the side of the dune, almost stumbling and crawling my way up, then down the other side, still stumbling but at a faster pace. Some of the dunes seemed much taller than their alleged thirty feet height. If the walk was any effort for Larry, it didn’t show. Hank seemed incapable of weariness as he bounded up and down the dunes at a sprint, always running; looking for sticks, hoping Larry will throw one for him.

We came to a much bigger depression between dunes, more like a valley than a pocket. It was filled with short little sumac, growing in a thick patch, grazed heavily by the deer. There were a few short, rounded cedar trees along the edges of the sumac and a few milk weed plants. We passed through the sumac and climbed up the next dune – again stopping for just a moment to admire the view. The rolling dunes ahead seemed to match the shape of the distant bluffs, only much smaller in scale. The sight was incredibly beautiful. We followed along the ridge to an active sand dune (We’d turned to our left again, heading westward), the soft sand was mostly exposed, very little vegetation grew on it, clumps of grass here and there. It was like a sand dune on a beach, reminding me of a scene from Anne of Green Gables when she’s walking along the shore. I had the urge to lie down on the sand, to feel it, let it run through my fingers. The grain was quite fine, making me think it is a soft sand rather than a course sand. Larry talked about the active sand dunes before we moved on. He also said, indicating a little further west, “This is a good spot to see pasque flowers in bloom.” I have yet to see a pasque flower but I hoped I’d see one in the coming weeks.

We walked down the dune, going westward, and then back up another. We paused for a moment on top of the dune, once again taking in the landscape, turning to look in every direction. There were a few cedar trees here and there. One stood on my right, as I faced west, a little down the slope from where I stood. On the other side, to the north of the cedar was the biggest dune we’d come to yet. Larry continued on ahead of me up the large dune, I turned to follow. He was already close to the top of the dune when I started hiking up it; he looked so tiny, dwarfed by the dune. It was the steepest climb yet, it felt like I could barely breathe by the time I reached the top – I’m so out of shape! But the view from on top of the dune was even more stunning, with the higher elevation. The prairie felt much bigger; I felt so small. How much larger would it feel if it was treeless like Larry would prefer it to be? That would have been a lot of hollows to search for lost cattle. How had the first settlers felt when they arrived here? To the west, I could just make out the road, a little sliver cutting through the prairie.

I looked at our shadows, ours and the dune’s, in the hollow – we looked so tiny compared to it all. There was a cluster of oak trees on the eastern slope of the dune. Larry led us downward through the trees. (We heard two flocks of swans flying overhead, heard them before we saw them.) Larry thought he heard a meadow lark. We were now heading eastward, making our way back to the truck. I paused to look at a skull, probably of a deer, lying in the grass. We passed a cedar tree, walked by a large patch of fox tail grass.

Just before the wall of trees we paused by the gopher mounds. Larry said something about how I could see how important they were to a place like this. Then we ducked under the branches, climbed up the ditch, and crawled back into the truck. I was a little surprised we’d only been walking for forty five minutes. We continued down the road to Halfmoon Landing. I tried sneaking through the trees there to look at the ducks but despite my best efforts I still made too much noise and scared them away. They were mostly mallards, but there was a ring necked duck across the water and further up the other direction a few wood ducks with the mallards. I returned to Larry, who stayed by the truck and then we left the sand prairie.

Ruins on the Prairie (Part III)

We went down a small incline passed through trees on either side of us; there was a patch of short scrubby trees. I looked back again and could make out the stone wall through the trees. Hank meandered about always looking for a stick to play with. There was a clump of pine trees on our left, we were facing east. The prairie opened up before us. There was a fire break mowed around it. Then a sea of little bluestem, stretching to the road on the north, the former farm site to the west, far to the south a row of trees and Goose Lake beyond. The trees continued in almost an oval shape around to the east as did the water. We waded through the little bluestem, the loose sand beneath made the walking difficult as my feet slipped and slid. We continued eastward. It didn’t feel quite so cold with the wind at our backs and the strenuous trek through the little bluestem. Soon we were on the edge of the trees.

Larry plunged ahead into the wooded area. I paused to take in the beauty of the peeling bark of a river birch tree, before following into the trees. A big tree, I wasn’t sure what kind it was, caught my attention. It had a big base which split into three main trunks only a couple feet off the ground. A very large bole stuck out like a wart just below the branching trunks. It was the bole that first caught my attention but it was overall a magnificent tree. We continued walking through the trees until we came to the edge of the water – it was so big, vast. The sun gleamed on the water. It was so stunning. We were no longer under the trees but there were trees to the very edge of the water on either side of us, they were mostly small and some leaned out over the water. There was still ice along the edge, anywhere from five to perhaps twenty feet out. With the trees between us and the wind it didn’t feel cold at all. The distant bluffs, cradling the water looked quite blue.

We turned to our left and continued walking, no longer right along the water’s edge. We came to another big tree with a large bole at the base. Larry admired it too, “That’s a really big river birch tree.”

I enjoyed walking through the trees. I noticed a spot where there was some ice, had the water come up this far? I saw another fascinating river birch; it had three trunks, separating almost as soon as it came out of the ground. It almost looked like three giant fingers popping out of the ground. I admired yet another river birch, its many trunks quite serpentine. We had come close to the corner of the lake, where the west and north banks met. Larry paused behind a tree and indicated the birds in the water; we weren’t very close to the water’s edge though Hank was.

Larry said, “You can sneak in closer but keep the big trees between you and them. They’re watching Hank.”

So I crept forward as quietly and cautiously as I could which was difficult given the dry underbrush. I darted between the big trees, ducking under branches, then stationed myself near a big one, crawling practically on hands and knees to get underneath it and to stay low. There was a whole bunch of birds on a little jut of vegetation, mostly mallards, and a single gull, large and white. A few of them spooked and flew away. I’m not sure if it was because of me or Hank. Further out in the water were more mallards, ring necks, a canvas back, and some too far out for me to identify them. They bobbed on the water. The water slapping against the ice made an interesting sound. Hank was wandering on the ice and broke through a little bit which he seemed to enjoy. After a few moments I went back to rejoin Larry; he had moved a little closer too. He said, “The red headed one is a canvasback.”

“Yeah, I was wondering if that was a canvasback.”

We walked out from underneath the trees and stepped on to the prairie. I stumbled as we plodded across the sand prairie, my feet slipped and slid in the sand. We were heading northwest, the wind was brutal, slapping us in the face. I was breathing heavily from the effort of hiking through the little bluestem and into the wind. I fell behind Larry several times and had to almost run to catch up to him. Far to our left, I could see the abandoned farmstead. The rock wall of the former barn almost looked to be standing on a knoll. We skirted the farmstead far to the north, returning to the truck by a different, more direct route. After ten minutes of trekking through the prairie we came to a stand of red pine trees – the same stand we observed when we started out, the truck was just on the other side. Larry sat down on the edge of the trees. I sat down too. Hank tried to get me to throw a stick for him but I shooed him away.

When we sat down Larry said, “That’s better.” Then he said, “I can understand why the first thing people did when they arrived on the prairie was to plant trees. They make a huge difference.”

With the trees blocking the wind and the sun beating down on us it did feel considerably warmer. We didn’t remain sitting for very long before we started walking again. Larry led us into the grove of red pines. The sunlight filtering through them and casting shadows across the trunks was quite lovely. It felt very peaceful tucked beneath the red pine boughs. Once we stepped out from their ranks we were immediately blasted by the icy cold wind again, chilling me all over again. We walked up the grassy driveway to the truck. It felt good to climb inside the cab and feel the heat. We left around 9:00 am and returned to Larry’s.

Ruins on the Prairie (Part II)

After taking a look through the window I walked to the side of it where Larry stood examining it. “I think it’s an old train box car. It’s really well built,” he said.

“An old box car? Cool!” I replied.

Part of the roof, again right above the doors, was falling apart. The roof was made of wooden planks covered in tin. A small piece of tin lay in the doorway. Once Larry said it was probably a box car, my curiosity was further piqued. How had it come to be here? And when? What had it been used for when it came to its final resting place here on the prairie? And what had been its former life as a noble train car? Where had it traveled? What all had it carried during its life as a train car? What sort of secrets could it tell? Did any people hitch a ride in it, riding the rails, hiding from the railroad workers? I may not be able to find the answers to all my questions, at least nothing definite, but I may find, through some research and speculation, probable answers or general answers about the life of box cars traveling the rails and then retiring from that life to be repurposed elsewhere. Larry was still studying it and said several times, “It’s really well built.” We were considering the iron pieces across the middle of the end and on the edge seams, the bottom corners, and the former door latch which was part of its being well built and gave the look of a box car; also the two doorways on either side, now missing their doors which looked like they would have been sliding doors. I walked around the other end and to the other side and then back again, returning to the window.

Larry gave another reason for why he thought this was an old box car, looking on the inside, “There are marks on the wall for barley, oats, and rye.” I looked inside the window and was fascinated to see what he was talking about. Written on the wall at three different heights, each with a solid black line under it was: RYE CORN FLAX on the bottom, just above it BARLEY and far above that, nearly touching the ceiling, OATS.

“Cool,” I was awed by this relic of a not too distant past. I love old, historic things so I was wonderstruck by this and to encounter it tucked in the rolling prairie nearly forgotten was really amazing; so much better and more real than seeing it preserved in a museum in the middle of some city. I took in the woodwork and the gentle peak of the underside of the roof. I backed up and took in the window one more time before we moved on.

The next structure, or rather what had been a structure, now lay in complete ruin. It had a limestone rock foundation, and looked to have had a wooden frame and roof. Now it was just a heap of boards and beams with brome grass colonizing it. I saw at least one sheet of old, rusty tin. It had probably been a barn or shed. In its former days of glory it most likely housed livestock. Directly south of that, on our right, across the former farm yard, was another collapsed building, just the roof peak was still intact. Made of wood and painted white some time ago, now fading. We didn’t really investigate the former barn but Larry walked up to the remains of this other building and peeked in the window. I can only guess what it had been, Larry probably knows but we didn’t discuss it. A house, granary, woodshed, summer kitchen– it could have been any number of things. I looked in the window too; there really wasn’t much to see; just another pile of lumber and such. We didn’t linger at that structure but continued walking. Trees grew up behind it, were they younger than this former building? A large beautiful oak tree stood beside it, its presence was commanding.

Larry said, “This was disturbed [possibly grazed/farmed] and then removed from production. See how it’s all brome grass?”

“This is brome grass?”

“Yep.”

Brome grass is not a native prairie plant but was imported for food for livestock. I looked back on the box car and the pile of rubble that had been a barn rimmed by trees, behind the box car the golden little bluestem waved in the breeze. It was amazing to see how quickly the grass was overtaking the rubble pile.

Ahead, decaying in the grass was another peak roof completely made of wood, wooden shingles even. The one end was mostly intact standing up above the prairie a little ways, but the other end had crumbled. It gave the affect of someone crawling away from an explosion on their elbows. A tree stood off to the side and slightly behind it, and beyond the tree stood an old stone wall. As we approached the wall, I could see a piece of the wooden roof leaning up against the stone as if it had just slid down. The stone was crumbling in some places but fairly well intact in many others. There were openings where the windows had been. The stone was beautiful. The wall had completely crumbled away on this end but looked to be intact on the other end with a large doorway. This had probably been the dairy barn with a wooden hay loft above it. Trees were growing up inside of it. I wanted to get closer to it, go in it, feel the place, put my hand on the stone but Larry didn’t pause at all, he just kept walking and I had to scamper to catch up to him. I admired the remains as I walked by, a little sad that what had been a gorgeous barn was now in ruin, and also wishing I had something like this on my farm, it would be a perfect place to sit and write and dream. Just a few feet away was a ring of concrete, all that remained of a silo, that would have been filled with silage to feed the cows. I had paused to turn back and look at the barn walls, to the left, southwest of what had been the barn stood an old house, abandoned for years. I desired to take a closer look at it and maybe one day soon I will.

Ruins on the Prairie (Part I)

March 10, 2017

Larry and I sat at his table deciding what we should do this morning. With the warm weather, we were eager to go canoeing but the temperatures had fallen precipitously yesterday afternoon; it was nine degrees this morning so canoeing was out of the question. However, even though it was well below freezing, there was no longer safe ice to walk on. Larry said, “I’d like to show you some restored prairie and prairie that had little disturbance, mostly just grazing. There’s a lot of grass at the first. And I want to show you where we’ve been cutting cedars and getting ready to burn.”

“Alright, sounds good.”

Once we decided on what we’d do this morning we headed out. We took Hank with us. It was before 8:00 am when we left Larry’s. Driving along Highway 84, we stopped just before the bridge. Larry spotted a pair of trumpeter swans in the alcove, just to the right of the channel on McCarthy. They had their heads tucked down, perhaps resting and trying to keep warm. Larry put down his window for us to look at them but then I got out of the truck and crossed the road for a slightly closer view. As I drew near to the edge of the road, they both lifted their heads, assessing me, turning their heads this way and that way without moving their bodies at all. Their heads were a rusty color. Their sleek necks and elegant bodies were glowing white. It was hard to tell if they were sitting on ice or in a tiny patch of open water. Indeed it was hard to distinguish what was open water or a thin layer of ice but the lake was definitely a patchwork of both. The water level was high. I walked back across the road and got back into the truck so we could continue.

We weren’t on 84 for long before we turned on to Pritchard’s, a meandering gravel road, taking in the prairie on either side. On the right was a restored prairie which looked like it was mostly little bluestem, and was flat. On the left the prairie was more diverse and rolled in dunes. Then on the right was a big clump of trees, the road curved about. Then it opened up again. This was Nature Conservancy (TNC) property. We pulled into a little drive way and parked the truck; except for people working for the TNC or DNR, there were no vehicles allowed. A row of pines, actually many rows planted together shaded the driveway and out into the prairie a ways. As we walked in the shadow of the fantastic pines, I asked Larry, “What kind of pines are these again?” I knew I should know but at that moment I was drawing a blank.

“They’re red pines,” replied Larry.

“Oh. Their bark isn’t as red as the ones up north.”

“It’s because of the different growing conditions and soil types.”

It was so cold, the northwest wind was relentless, and walking in the shadow only made it worse. To our right, just beyond the shadow’s reach and glowing in the morning sun was a gentle rolling hill with many trees, not completely covered but far more than just a few, I just loved the amber color and texture of the little bluestem, though it was a bit hard to walk through with the sand beneath it. We turned a bit and walked southwest ward, toward the hill. We rounded a knoll jutting out and sat down in the sunshine, the hill protected us on the north and west so we were out of the wind. Larry said, “That’s better isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Though the temperature was still a single digit, being out of the wind and bathed by sunshine, it barely felt cold anymore; in fact it was almost felt pleasant. I probably could have leaned back and shut my eyes and maybe not quite fall asleep but close. Several oak trees studded the knoll on the north side. The west knoll was mainly empty of trees. Of course Hank didn’t stop for a rest, he ran around checking everything out.

It was a very short rest, in five minutes we were up and walking again. There were remainders on the hill side of cedar trees that had grown here but that were cut down by the TNC a few years ago, now just skeletal remains bleached white. Leaves from the oak trees littered the ground, nestling into the grass. We’d come far enough away from our pocket between the knolls that we were back in the chilling wind. We turned southwestward, climbing a slight incline around the end of the knoll. On higher ground, completely out in the open the wind really hit us. The prairie before us looked desolate. Other than the cedars here and there, everything was a variation of gray and brown. Even the short scrubby sumac, though brilliant in autumn, lent to the feeling of it being desolate with its bare gray branches reaching out every which way, gnawed on by deer. The golden patches of little bluestem growing here and there offered the only bright, vibrant color. We veered southward and into a stand of trees encroaching on the prairie. It was a little warmer in the trees; they slowed the wind and yet didn’t block out the sunlight that came filtering through. We walked in a fire break, about as wide as a car; it had been mowed and cleared, and any trees that had been growing in it had been cut down close to the ground and removed.

Soon the trees opened up onto a little clearing which was walled in by trees on all sides. To the south, I could just make out a splash of blue through the trees, the lake on the edge of the rolling prairie. Larry turned east, I followed. We walked through another stand of trees and in moments came out in another clearing. This stretch of prairie was bigger but still mostly fenced in by trees.  A fire break, where the grass had been mowed, ran right down the middle of it. Little bluestem mingled with other grasses in tangled masses. A lot of the grass was lying down, flattened probably from the weight of the snow. We cut a diagonal path across the tangled, matted prairie grass. Larry found a deer bone in the grass, it looked like it was a joint bone. I paused to look at it for a moment and had to nearly run to catch up with Larry again. Before I caught up to Larry, I saw a deer leg sticking out of a hole. It was the hoof sticking up out of the grass that first caught my attention. I called to Larry, “There’s a deer leg sticking out of a hole.” He came back to where I stood, curious about it. We studied it together for a moment, without pulling it out, before we continued walking. This patch of prairie had a lot of mullein plants growing in it. The plants were taller than me and the way the dried seed heads branched off the stalk made me think of cactus plants. They also seemed to be almost sentient beings. We walked through them and around a line of trees to another open area that had been a homestead, now it was mostly in ruins, which I found very intriguing. I’ve always found ruins fascinating. I suppose I’m drawn by curiosity, what story do they have to tell? Who lived there and how did they live? What kind of life did they lead? What happened to them? Why were these structures allowed to deteriorate into ruins? Sometimes these questions flood my mind along with a feeling of sadness, some structures seem too interesting to be left to decay, though perhaps it has a sad story to tell. Larry enjoys ruins because he likes to see how quickly nature will take back what belonged to it in the first place. The first structure we saw and inspected was probably the least damaged of them all. It was made of wood. At first I thought it was a shed or barn of sorts for perhaps pigs or chickens. It was narrow and long. Larry walked up along side of it to look at it more closely. I walked up to the end of it to look in the window. There were two doors on either side of it, gaping holes pouring in sunlight, and a rectangle window in the other end. The floor was made of wooden planks. There were a few old tires and an old lawn chair inside it. In the middle by the open doors, the floor had started to rot away.

Hiking Lower McCarthy Lake

February 15, 2017

Larry and I set out around 8:00 am from his place; once again McCarthy was our destination. This time we went up from the bridge. We began our walk at 8:17 am. It was a beautiful morning, only a few wispy clouds, the temperature was still crisp at 18 degrees but not as chilling as last week’s outing. I stood taking in the frozen “lake” ahead of me, the trees rising up out of it, the bluffs beyond were all bathed in gold from the morning sun. Before trekking up McCarthy, Larry wanted to check out the ice under the bridge, see if there was anything interesting. I marveled at various patterns in the ice, round whitish dots and clear squiggly lines where the ice had cracked or shifted. On the other side of the piling a spot in the ice looked like a cracked vehicle window, the glass broken but not yet fallen apart. I looked down Schmoker’s Channel, it looked frozen solid. Larry and I checked out the bird nests, piles of hardened mud stuck on top of each other. They were built by swallows, in the spring the noisy birds will occupy then once again. The ice was quite slippery, even for Hank; we were amused that he left claw marks on the ice as he ran.

We walked out from under the bridge and began our hike up McCarthy, following our canoe path. The channel was much wider than it had been in October, the vegetation had died back so what was left above the ice was shorter and much reduced. We went up along the various “islands” as we had with the canoe. The first one didn’t really resemble an island now but just a couple of trees sticking out above the ice. Beyond the islands, there was a strip of thin ice, it was completely transparent and may have only formed last night. We could see the water flowing beneath the ice as it made the vegetation dance. This narrow strip of ice that had probably been open water only yesterday went on a ways, snaking along the vegetation near the bank. McCarthy Lake looked vast up ahead of us. To our left were some sort of tracks in the ice, I wonder who had left them behind, they almost looked more human than animal. There was also a crack where the ice had shifted. We were still walking along near the thin ice area, it held Larry’s attention. Hank way up ahead of us plunged in for a winter swim; he was quickly back on to the ice however.

Larry said, “Something moved in the water; I don’t think it was Hank. It wouldn’t have come down this fast.” I peered into the water below the ice, intrigued. We continued walking, veering a bit to our left, heading northwest, past what had been the lily patch and where we saw the rails, and past where we’d seen the great blue heron. We came up along a muskrat lodge, just a domed shape pile of rushes. There was a small hole in it on the other side. We’d left the open ice behind us and where now in the thick bulrushes and cattails. There was another muskrat house, larger and a bit taller than the first. We’d left the channel for the rushes to take a look at the muskrat house, but we were still walking on ice not ground. Again I was trailing behind Larry through the tangle of rushes. His feet left no prints and it was hard to know exactly where he placed his feet. So as I was walking away from the muskrat house, my left foot went through the ice up to my knee. I quickly pulled my leg out of the water. I was angry with myself and felt like a fool for having stepped on thin ice. Concerned Larry asked, “Did you get water in your boot?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it all the way in your toes yet?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“We better keep moving then, start making our way back.” He also mentioned getting on land. Although it was cold it wasn’t so cold to worry too much about my wet foot. He led the way through the rushes and cattails; I tried to stick close to him as possible. It felt like the water was sloshing under my foot, going from one end to another as I walked. (Sometimes it would feel almost numb but then all of a sudden it would barely feel cold and it went back and fort h between the two until we got back to the truck.) We got up on the bank, ducking under tree branches and pushing past them. Once through the trees, we were walking on the prairie. The little bluestem was a beautiful amber color; there was no more snow left. We hiked through the prairie, trees on our right, to what seemed like the corner of it. Larry said, “This is where we saw the nesting turtles.”

“That’s where we are?” I hadn’t recognized the place because we came out to the prairie from the opposite direction. We then entered the wooded area again. Hank found sticks and begged Larry to throw them, which he did a few times. Larry went along the bank trying to find a good place to get back on the ice. He then took us southeast. We walked out from the trees and among the rushes again, leaving behind firm ground, returning to the ice. Again, I stayed close behind Larry as I could, paying more attention to where he placed his feet than to the landscape around us. Even then it was hard to know exactly where he placed his feet in the tangle of rushes. We headed westward at first to rejoin the channel. Then we were through the rushes and headed southward back the way we came. Larry put his arm around my shoulder and asked, “How’s your foot feeling? Cold?”

“It’s not too cold. The sloshing of the water is annoying though.”

“You must have gotten a lot of water in your boot. If you fall through the ice, you should get out fast, lay down on top of it and lift your foot up to drain the water before it reaches your toes.”

“Ok. It feels weird though because my other foot is actually too hot and is sweaty.”

“It should even the two out then,” Larry joked.

The lily patch area was behind us. We walked past the first island, fallen down trees reached out in to the ice, trying to grasp at something. Hank found another stick that Larry threw for him. As we walked along I said, “This vegetation and trees separating the two channels was a lot bigger.”

“That’s because the vegetation died back.” We examined it closely and saw a lot of old stumps.

Soon we were nearing the bridge. While Larry threw one more stick for Hank, I looked back up the lake one more time, taking in the beauty. The beaver lodge next to the bridge was still mostly hidden but I think it was occupied because there looked to be a pile of branches under the ice near it. Only an hour or so out on the frozen lake we climbed back into the truck. We drove along 84 and down Pritchard’s to the landing and then back along 84. We weren’t done on the prairie for the day though.

Back at Larry’s, I took my boots off and winter layers, and my socks. I pulled up a chair to the wood stove to warm my feet and to try drying my pant leg. Larry pulled up a chair too. We snacked on cookies and enjoyed the warmth of the stove for a few minutes. Larry found dry socks for me and then we went to pick Thelma up.

As soon as we pulled up and stepped out of the jeep, she came out of the house all ready to go, binoculars around her neck. Larry walked with her, holding her arm and helped her get in the jeep. Then we drove around the barns. She had Larry stop to talk about the bluff and the Weaver Bottoms. Then we continued along the long driveway to the highway and went to the Weaver landing. We stopped there for about twenty minutes as Thelma talked about fishing and how Weaver used to be. Then we drove through Weaver. Larry and Thelma talked about it.

From Weaver, we returned to the prairie. Just past the railroad tracks on 84, Larry halted again. Thelma talked about hunting in that area. While she was talking an Amtrak train went by, she told us of the first passenger train that went through. We then drove along 84 and out through West Newton, all the while Thelma talked about the changes. At Halfmoon Landing, she talked about fishing again and maintaining the landing so it’s more family and elderly accessible. We returned her home two hours later.

Icy Exploration (Part II)

We turned more westward into the tangle of vegetation and trees. We pushed into the line of trees, branches sliding along our coats. We ducked under branches and pushed others aside, stepping over low or fallen branches. We came to an old rusted fence, just three strands of barbed wire, crossed and tangled around the trees. Larry said, “I’m still amazed that they grazed this!” He stepped over the wires, I took in the fence. It was a little too high for me to be comfortable stepping over especially with all my layers on. I decided to scoot under it instead. I too am amazed that this was grazed – it seemed like it would have been a lot of hassle to fetch the cows. There may have been less water here at the time or more channelized but it was still a wetland.

We came out through the trees. Larry said, “There’s now purple loose strife here.”

I asked, “Which plant is that?” Larry pointed it out to me, a tall grass like plant. He said they are working on controlling (eradicating) it – it is an invasive species to this area.

Ahead on our right, I saw a good sized beaver lodge, “There’s a beaver lodge!”

“Yeah. Should we go check it out?” Larry asked.

“Yes!” I replied. A bluff towered above it, both of similar shape. Trees gathered behind the beaver lodge. We saw a few muskrat houses, far off from us. We paused by some indistinct tracks in the snow. Larry thought they could be muskrat tracks. A muskrat doesn’t last very long out on top of the snow; they become easy prey. We closed the distance to the beaver lodge quite quickly. It was good sized indeed. Now standing close beside it the scale between it and the bluff didn’t seem so immense – but that was only because of the perspective while standing next to the lodge, it was incomparably small, not even a mere fraction of the bluff behind. We checked out the ice near the lodge with small pieces of sticks scattered here and there in it. A cache of sticks, mostly under the ice and snow, stretched out many feet away from the lodge. Before we’d headed out on our walkabout, I told Larry tomorrow was suppose to get up to forty degrees, which we both thought was far too warm. So as we took in the beaver lodge Larry said, “The beaver will probably take advantage of the warm temperatures and venture out to its wood cache.” I imagined a beaver popping up out of the water chewing on a stick then slipping back into the tunnel and up into the lodge for a few meals worth of sticks with it.

We head southwestward, making our way back to the truck. Across the snow-covered ice, vegetation on its fringes, past a couple of muskrat houses, we walked onward. I turned to look back at the beaver lodge; we’d already put some distance between us. It was almost hidden from view with all the vegetation; I could only see the top of it. Then we left the open ice for the tangle of bulrushes and cattails, turning ever so slightly more westward, until we were headed west, the railroad tracks and highway ahead and above us. We paused at a muskrat house that had been drilled. Larry stuck his pole inside it. Sometimes they escape and then walk around on top of the ice for awhile but there they became easy prey. This one was nestled among alders, the same alders we skirted past at the beginning of our walk. Around the alders, we paused to take a look at the pool of water with a thin layer of clear ice now on our right. Larry was wondering what animals took advantage of the open water, only a few days before, but there weren’t any clues.

We began the steep climb up the embankment. Larry pointed out the rusted T-posts; all that remained of a fence. Again we were amazed they grazed this area. Larry and Hank walked on ahead of me, across the railroad tracks. I paused for a moment on the track and looked toward where it soon disappeared around a bend along the trees. It is a curious feeling, standing on train tracks; I’m not sure how to describe it. You feel small; your part in history is very small. Though it has probably been rebuilt since, the track has been here for a hundred and forty six years. It’s a time warp, you step on it and time is absent, it could be 1880, 1930, or 2017. It spans the present and the past. A steam engine carrying logs from Minneapolis to the mills of Winona could come speeding around the bend at any moment, or be carrying livestock or grain. It could be stopping in Weaver to pick up crates of onions, melons, and squash. It is incredible how timeless train tracks feel.

A little beyond the tracks, before the climb up the second embankment to the road, Larry halted. I stepped off the tracks and joined him. He pointed out wavy lines, miniature crevasses in the snow, “Mouse tunnels that were exposed when some of the snow melted,” he explained.

“Cool.” Then, keeping Hank close, we hiked up the steep embankment to the truck. I turned and looked back at the marsh stretched out before us. The view from above the marsh was spectacular. Larry pointed out some trees way off in the distance that if we had continued northeastward we would have come into, he said, “We would have gone into those trees if it wasn’t so cold.”

We went to Kellogg to the Town and Country Café to warm up with some delicious pie. After enjoying a slice of pie each, we left Kellogg on Highway 84 instead of 61. We turned down to West Newton. Larry told me they were going to add more sand to the area and rip up the prairie and start over – not the way he would go about it. We drove into the parking area for the West Newton Landing. The channel was flowing, moving quite quickly, taking ice chunks downstream – it was an incredible sight. Larry said it’s fun to canoe when the water is flowing and the ice is breaking up. I said it sounds like it, and I’d love to do it. Then we drove to Halfmoon Landing and then back to 84 and on to Larry’s.

Icy Exploration (Part I)

February 9, 2017

It was a cold day, only about six degrees when we left Larry’s, wind blowing out of the north brought the temperature a bit below that even – I didn’t really want to know what the wind chill was and I’m not sure Larry realized just how cold it was before we set out. I think if he had we wouldn’t have attempted a walkabout. We began around 8:30 am. Larry decided we’d go further up on McCarthy this time, going in from Highway 61. As we drove along the highway, I enjoyed the elevated view of the vast wetland of McCarthy Lake Scientific and Natural Area. It’s an impressive and beautiful sight. The bluffs rose up on our left.

Larry pulled the truck over to the side of the road, “How’s this look, do you want to walk around here?”

“Yeah, this looks great.”

“Have we been here before?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe a few years ago.” (After walking around, I think this is a spot I haven’t been to before.)

“I’ll let Hank out your door.” With that Larry got out, grabbed his walking pole from the back of the truck and walked around to the other side. I slid out, put my camera around my neck, long lens in one pocket and binoculars in the other and then stepped out of the way so Hank could get out when Larry gave the command.

We walked down the steep embankment, snow crunching underfoot, to the railroad tracks, then across the tracks and down another steep embankment, walking on springy aquatic vegetation and snow. Then it leveled out. A pool on our left looked like the ice had been open recently. There was a wall of small trees, a lot of alders.  Larry taped the ice with the pole to check for thickness before stepping on it. The ice here was perfectly transparent. Larry skirted around an alder, pushing past its branches. He then turned back toward me and instructed to follow exactly where he’d stepped. Then we were back on the crunchy snow, ducking under tree branches and pushing past them, careful not to trip on any lying on the ground. Our feet against the snow and reeds made quite a loud noise. We were quickly through the trees. The bulrushes came to a halt and ice stretched out before us and to the left and to the right a ways, with some wispy vegetation sticking up here and there. The ice had a very thin layer of snow carpeting it. The snow and ice reflected the sun creating a blinding glare; both Larry and I wore sunglasses. Hank ran out across the ice ahead of us preferring a full out run to a nice steady walk. We headed northeastward, and were blasted by the chilling wind. Larry commented several times, “Wow, it’s really crisp out here.” We could see the blue gray bluffs off in the distance ahead of us, bluffs far off in the distance to the south, southeast, and southwest too. Rimming the ice was a narrower swath of bulrushes and trees. There were muskrat houses among the rushes far to the right and left. Closer than the bluffs but still a long way off, down the ice, trees rimmed the marsh. Bluffs stood behind us and northwest of us, with again a wall of trees between the marsh and bluffs. Rushes became thick far off that direction too with a muskrat lodge on the outskirts. Only north of us, were no bluffs hemming us in. (The bluffs do part in the south but where we stood it had the illusion that the bluffs stretched east to west across the south end of the marsh.) It was fun to explore in a different area but the cold and bone chilling wind kept my thoughts from going very far beyond the temperature.

It only took us a few minutes to cross the ice and reach the trees on the other side. Soon we were crashing through rushes, cattails and other vegetation to the trees. The trees rose up, completely nude though some were starting to bud. Their branches interrupted the perfectly blue sky with beautiful squiggly lines. They stood with so much grace and poise. Each had a character all its own.

On the other side of the single row of trees very tall, giant rushes rose up above us, perhaps eight to ten feet tall. Their stems were rounded and segmented. At the top of the stem were thin blade like leaves floating and waving like flags. They clacked together in the wind sounding like reedy wind chimes, not quite like wind blowing cottonwood leaves but quite similar to it. It was a fun experience to walk past those tall plants. At our feet, bent, curved and tangled river bulrushes among pockets of ice and snow. Then the vegetation cleared a little more and we walked on top opaque ice, swept clean of snow. We passed by a short alder tree that was already adorned with catkins, like slender caterpillars dangling from the tree branches in pairs.

Pockets of vegetation filled back in the ice, with a few more small trees on our right. We saw more cattails again; Larry sometimes whacked them with his pole sending seeds everywhere, caught up on the wind. The vegetation clumped together thickly putting the ice more into a roughly defined channel, stretching southeast to northwest. Looking southeast, were a handful of trees along the channel immediately on our right, then it cut its meandering path through aquatic vegetation. We walked across the modest sized channel. Then I turned to look back northwest, up the channel. It appeared narrower that direction and meandered through the aquatic vegetation with more trees bordering it on either side, mostly short, small trees until further up. I could just make out a muskrat lodge among the tangle of rushes on the other side and further up the channel. I took it all in at a glance, not wanting to fall too far behind Larry.

The vegetation opened up again and fell away, a channel of ice easily twice, perhaps three times as wide as the other channel stretched out in front and northwest  (left) and southeast (right) of us. It narrowed through a thin patch of vegetation to the northwest but then gave way to a large area of open ice again. The ice here was mostly covered by a thin layer of snow ridge ripples like sand textured by the tide. Larry led us across the wider channel and up to a thicket of the very tall rush. Instead of skirting around the giant rushes like I expected, Larry walked straight up to and in them and then sat down among them, surrounded by them on three sides. He was blocked from the wind but exposed to the sun. He invited me to join him. So I also sat down in the shelter of the giant rushes, facing the intense sun. Larry asked, “Doesn’t that feel much warmer?”

“Yes,” I replied. It was amazing how effective the plants were at blocking the wind and allowing us to feel the heat of the sun. I had the pleasure of viewing the plants from a new angle. I enjoyed the sun on my face, warming it and shut my eyes to take it in. We leaned back further and then lay down, snapping off rushes in the process. The rushes swayed in the wind above us, again producing a reedy sound, almost cottonwood leaf sound. My eyes shut, it was amazing. I was connected to the marsh, dependent on it for shelter from the wind and therefore warmth. Hank doesn’t like to stay still, so he explored the area around us, walked on top of us to try to get us moving again and went crashing through the brittle plants not far from our heads, making quite an interesting sound as the stems broke, the sound louder with our ears close to the stems at ice level. Again it was a pretty amazing experience. We were lying there for a good twenty minutes soaking up the sun before we gave into Hank’s pleading that we keep moving. My backside was cool, resting against the ice but my front had warmed quite nicely in the sunshine. But as soon as we stood up and stepped out from the tall plants, we were once again cooled and chilled by the wind. Hank had found a small stick and was begging Larry to throw it, so Larry tossed it a couple of times. From there we turned northwest up the open ice, right into the wind. There were cracks in the ice where the ice had pulled away from each other but was still frozen solid. We walked around patches of rushes and cattails mingled together. I trailed behind Larry.

I observed bird tracks in the ice, like little tridents. I got Larry’s attention and he walked back to take a look. “Looks like a crow walked across here when the top of the ice was a little melted.” We continued walking.

Then Larry paused near a mound of snow on the fringe of rushes. There were tracks in the snow and possible slide marks. Larry said, “I’m pretty sure these are otter tracks.” The thought that they could be otter tracks was exciting; they’d be the first sign of otters we’ve seen all winter. Onward we walked. Vegetation grew thick on our left, clumps of rushes and cattails and alders, trees rising up a little further off, excellent habitat for muskrats. Larry thought we weren’t seeing many muskrats either. But he wasn’t too worried about them because of their reproduction capabilities.

An Icy Walk on McCarthy Lake (Part II)

Another muskrat lodge rose up above the marsh many yards away on our left, as we continued our trek down the channel. Another channel or pool could just barely be seen beyond it. I took in the beauty of the morass of rushes and cattails, random trees standing above the marsh and the bluffs that bordered it on the west. The channel ahead of us curved southeast, disappearing behind the bulrushes. I observed muskrat lodges a distance away from the channel, here and there. Hopefully many of them were occupied. Then on our left, east side, a muskrat lodge sat on the edge of the channel. I paused to take a look at it. A big pile of rushes and other pieces of tangled vegetation, small sticks and mud built against a log. Was there a muskrat or two snuggled inside that mound, all cozy warm, waiting out winter? Larry had continued walking, I sped walked to catch up to him.

He halted for me to catch up and to show me a path through the rushes. “A boat of some sort pushed its way through here, making a path.” It was incredible that the boat’s path was still so clearly visible. They were probably duck hunting. It almost seemed odd that the vegetation didn’t fill back in removing the path.

Larry pressed onward, I followed behind. The channel bent sharply westward again. On the east side of the bend, a tall beaver lodge loomed up above the river bulrush. It didn’t go outward like many of the other beaver lodges I’ve seen in this area but upward. Larry estimated it was twelve feet tall. While Hank and Larry went over to check out the lodge, I took the opportunity to look at the marsh all around, looking first southwest where the channel again bends sharply to the southeast, bluffs ahead and only a few trees; west, a line of trees block the view of the bluffs beyond, the trees are thicker; northwest, bluffs go on and on far to the north, the marsh stretches on and on, with a rim of trees far in the distance; northeast, marsh and thick woods not so far away. Larry carefully climbed up the lodge. I walked closer to it and then stooped down to look at the food cache of branches; some of the ends were freshly gnawed on.

From the top of the lodge, Larry said, “This is a good view. Come on up. Get a different perspective.” So, careful to follow Larry’s foot prints around and over the food cache, I approached the lodge. It seemed almost strange to be climbing on a beaver lodge and yet so very thrilling. The structure is incredibly well built and sturdy. As I came close to the top, Larry bent down and reached out his hand to help me up the last little bit. “How about the view?” Larry asked. The extra twelve feet above the marsh did provide a better vantage point for viewing it.

“It is better.” I replied, turning to take it in. I didn’t turn all the way about, I felt like if I moved too much I would be blown right off the lodge, the wind was blowing so fiercely. The view was beautiful and provided a better feel for just how big the McCarthy scientific and natural area is. Was there a family of beavers in the lodge below us? – Mom, dad, a couple of yearlings and a few on the way? The thought was exhilarating. As always, we didn’t linger long. Larry climbed down the way we came and half way down turned back to me with hand extended. I took hold of his hand and let him help me down. (I’m a climber, I probably would have been fine on my own but appreciated the thoughtful gesture.)

As he walked back around the food cache to the channel, Larry said, “You followed my footsteps, that’s always good to do.” (Walking on ice can be dangerous so following someone who knows how to check the quality of the ice is a smart thing to do.)

We continued along the channel, going around the bend. Larry pointed out mink tracks in the snow wandering through the rushes. Following the tracks, we came to a hole in the ice that had filmed over with a thin layer of ice. Larry poked his stick into it, breaking the ice. There were a few different tracks around it. A little further ahead and the channel turned abruptly and became wider, less defined, and more overgrown with clumps of river bulrushes, which Larry said were a sedge. Here there was a lot of thin ice and open water. Hank went plunging and crashing into it. Larry and I halted. This was all the further we were going to go. After a few moments we turned and followed our course back. By then, I was so cold the dripping of my nose had grown worse as did the watering of my eyes.

When we got back to the point where we’d seen a lot of beaver gnawed trees and where the channel ran and wound closer to the trees, we left the channel for the trees.

Larry paused to look at a tree. It seemed to have been attacked with gashes here and there. “Butternut canker. It could still survive. The butternut is now an endangered species.”

I’m not too familiar with butternut trees, so it was like meeting a new friend – though sweet it was also bitter knowing this tree may not live much longer, that this species may not be around much longer either. It was a beautiful tree even though damaged by the canker.

We were now headed northeast, further into the trees, on our right was a large alcove nestled among the trees, it looked much the same as the marsh. Larry explained that it varies how much water is back in there from year to year but it is wet.

A tree, small in diameter, but tall had been rubbed quite furiously. The bark around the edges of the rub was hanging down in shredded strips. Larry joked, “Someone didn’t like that tree.” A buck, probably quite recently used this tree to try to get rid of his antlers. We walked by a tree that had been felled by a beaver but not hauled away. The gnawed areas were spotted with a black fungus. Nearby, a beaver had begun on another tree but only got past the outer layer of bark before giving up. A beautiful, tall, very straight tree had a vine running up it, like a snake, but even more fascinating was the vine had grown into the tree or the tree had grown into the vine.

Larry said, “There’s a lot of ash trees here, mostly ash trees. If the emerald ash borer ever gets here, it’s not going to be good.” I hope the emerald ash borer doesn’t make it here. We were ducking under and around tree branches, following well traveled deer trails. Now that we were no longer out in the wind, I quickly warmed up and even became hot. My body was weary from the walk but my spirit and soul were thoroughly enjoying it.

We came upon an iron wheel wedged between a couple of trees, on closer look it was two wheels. Larry joked, “We should tell Gene he left his running gear out here.” Although it’s not ideal for it to be sitting in the woods, it was a fascinating find; a piece of history that brought up questions. What had it belonged to? How old was it? What sort of life had it seen? How had it come to this resting place, forgotten in the woods? The wheel was a lovely piece of iron work, engaging to the eye. We walked onward, across a little stream meandering through the woods – perhaps the same one we walked across on the start of our walk. Then past another butternut tree, Larry said, “Butternut canker. But it looks like this one will live.”

Larry said, “As we gain elevation, we start to see more trees like basswood. But a lot of ash, especially where they get their feet wet.” We had begun to gain elevation, so gradual at first I barely noticed but then we were going uphill a little more. We turned more northward and soon were walking along the small creek we’d crossed at the start. We came out of the trees and were back on the prairie. As we pulled out of the parking lot, Larry said, “I thought they were going to stop planting this with sunflowers, corn, and sorghum and restore it to prairie.” The temperature had dropped three degrees in the past hour, while we were out walking. The sun was now shining.

“Ready to go talk to Thelma?” asked Larry.

“Yep!” I replied.

We crossed highway 61 on to a gravel road. The road was actually just Thelma’s driveway. We left Hank in the truck while we went in the house to chat with Thelma. (I had been there in October with Larry to meet Thelma but he had to reintroduce me.) We were greeted warmly by Bo, Thelma’s brother, a dog, a cat and Thelma herself. She is a sweet lady, so full of love, as we began to talk it seemed like we’d already known each other well. The three of them chatted about fishing and the West Newton Landing, and its need for some upkeep, perhaps regular citizens could take care of it, until Bo had to leave. Then Larry explained my interest in the area and its history. Thelma began to tell us about her family’s relationship to the land, farmers first but once the chores were done they’d go hunting and fishing. She said she can remember her first time fishing with her dad. She would make him a sandwich and fill a canteen of sorts with coffee and tuck them into his coat every time he went out. – It was a sort of ritual. She described duck hunting and the way things were back then. Her dad was out hunting when her brothers were born. She described the boats they used. Fishing poles made of willow branches. She said the ritual of it and coming together as a family, spending time out in nature was what it was about – any animals caught was just a bonus, but the animals kept their family well feed, especially in the depression years. The tradition and ritual of hunting as a time to spend together and enjoy nature first and foremost, and not taking too much is something Thelma felt was important to pass on to her children. She said this was the most beautiful place and that she had fallen in love with it. Also, she talked about the importance of not harvesting an excessive amount of animals – you only need a few. I could have sat and listened to her stories for hours. She suggested we take a drive, and the memories would flow. Both Larry and I enjoyed her stories and were amazed at her memory and looked forward to hearing more.